It is becoming more and more popular by the year for eager travellers to Spain’s beautiful Basque Country to plan a 2 to 3 days in Bilbao itinerary. As the largest city in this northerly region, Bilbao has traditionally had a rough and industrial reputation that has changed significantly over the past few decades following the opening of the Guggenheim museum.
Artsy and eclectic, Bilbao actually has quite a lot to offer beyond the Guggenheim and it is very much worth visiting even if you’re not interested in modern art. Boasting a fantastic culinary scene, an interesting history, lively old and new towns and, of course, one of the most famous art museums in the world, planning a Bilbao itinerary is never a bad idea.
So if you’re planning a trip to Spanish Basque country and want to spend 2 or 3 days in Bilbao, then make sure to read on to ensure you map out the perfect time in this bustling metropolis.
How Many Days in Bilbao?
When planning a trip to this eclectic city, many people wonder how many days in Bilbao are enough to do it justice? Bilbao is quite a large city – the largest in the area – and there is quite a lot to do in and around the city.
Though many think that spending one day in the city may be sufficient, it is worth planning to spend at least 2 days in Bilbao to really be able to see the majority of the points of interest here.
With 2 days, you get the time to be able to enjoy all of the sites and points of interest of the Old Town on one day while giving you enough time to hit a museum (likely the Guggenheim if it interests you, but there are plenty of others to choose from) and explore the New Town on the other day. You will also have plenty of time to try out the countless fabulous pintxos bars and restaurants on offer in the city.
If you are fortunate enough to have 3 days in Bilbao to allot for your itinerary, then you’re really in luck. With three days to devote to your Bilbao itinerary, you have the opportunity to take a day trip and explore some of the surrounding area. This will not only reward you with incredible coastal views but also give you a greater feel for the Basque Country as a whole.
Getting To and Around Bilbao
Another important thing to work out before mapping out your Bilbao itinerary is how you plan to get to the city and how you plan to get around once you’re there.
Bilbao is home to its own small international airport that serves a number of airlines and destinations and if you’re planning a trip simply to the Basque country or as a city break, then flying into Bilbao is an excellent option.
The airport is located very close to the city centre and there is a bus that can get you to the centre in about 25 minutes should you not have your own transport or don’t want to take a taxi.
If you want to rent a car during your time in Basque country, there are a number of providers available on Rentalcars.com which aggregates many options.
Bibao also has a train station that is connected to cities all over Spain. There are also bus connections from nearby cities such as San Sebastian to Bilbao if you prefer to arrive overland. You can view schedules here.
Once in Bilbao, getting around is very simple and you could rely solely on your own two feet while travelling in the city. The centre of Bilbao is incredibly pedestrian-friendly and if you really only plan on visiting the old and new towns of the city, then there is no real need to bother with public transit.
That being said, however, Bilbao does have an extensive public transit network that consists of a metro, tram and bus network that can take you everywhere you need to go. You can make use of the system by purchasing a Barik card at any of the kiosks at metro stations.
The initial card costs €3 and you can top it up with whatever you need for your journeys. The good news is that you only need to purchase one card for your entire party – you can just tap it on multiple times when entering the public transit.
2 to 3 Days in Bilbao Itinerary
Without further ado, this is how to spend 2 or 3 days in Bilbao! The first two days of this Bilbao itinerary concentrate on the city centre itself while the third day will take you to explore some of the surrounding area.
Day 1 – Explore the Old Town
Day one sees you wandering all over the top sites in and around the Old Town of Bilbao. This is a busy day so make sure that you’re wearing comfortable shoes!
La Ribera Market
There is really no itinerary of a Spanish city where I don’t suggest the first stop to be the main market hall, and Bilbao is not different. So make the first stop on your 2 days in Bilbao itinerary (or 3 days!) the iconic La Ribera Market!
Market culture is strong in all corners of Spain, but it is particularly pervasive in a gastronomic hotspot like the Basque country. You can’t come to this region of Spain without knowing about the deep love and respect for food and at the core of the cuisine is the hyper-locality and freshness of the ingredients. And the best place to see the source of these ingredients is the market!
La Ribera Market is one of the largest covered market halls in the world (it was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records in 1990) and it spans a number of floors while overlooking the Bilbao Estuary.
Constructed over the former Plaza Mayor, the ground floor consists of trendy “gastro bars” and cafes while the top two floors consist of everything from vegetable stands, butchers, cheesemongers, pastry shops, olive sellers and fishmongers. If you’re after a light breakfast, head to Cafe Bar Iaela across the road from the market which severals a selection of sandwiches, pastries and coffees at an affordable price.
Heading to the market is the perfect first stop on any Bilbao itinerary and is an excellent introduction to the famed Basque cuisine.
From the market, it’s time to meander into the Old Town. There are a number of sites to see here and plan to spend a couple of hours wandering around to see everything.
If you’d like to do this with a guide, we recommend either opting for the Bilbao Free Walking Tour which leaves from the Arriaga Theatre (you must book in advance) or, if you’d like a paid option, this guided tour of Bilbao allows you to arrange a customised tour.
Start your walk at the San Antón Church, which is situated just adjacent to La Ribera Market. This is an impressive church that also features on the crest for the Bilbao football team (so you can understand it’s significance!).
From the church, stroll along the estuary until you reach the Arriaga Theatre, a beautiful Neo-Baroque concert hall that is named after Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga, who is often referred to as the “Spanish Mozart.”
Just across from the theatre lies a lovely riverside park and the St Nicholas Church. An interesting point to see on the water levels from a major flood in August of 1983. The water levels reached nearly 3 metres above the ground and ruined much of the industry that Bilbao was famous for.
Next, stroll over to Plaza Nueva. This name translates to “New Square” and it was constructed as a replacement for the Plaza Mayor (or main square) that was overtaken by the market hall. Plaza Nueva looks like many other squares in Spanish cities and it is lined with countless bars and restaurants to enjoy. In fact, this is a great place to visit when you’re ready for lunch or dinner (or even a snack)!
The next stop on your old town tour is the Catedral de Santiago de Bilbao or the Cathedral of St James of Bilbao. This beautiful church costs a pretty penny to enter, but it is just gorgeous from the outside if you don’t want to pay the entry fee. The cathedral sits at the centre of the Old Town and all of the trees tend to fan out from there. It is a truly a beautiful place.
Locals of Bilbao like to joke that the city actually has two cathedrals – the St James Cathedral in the Old Town and the Football Stadium (and if you’re interested in seeing the latter, you can book a guided tour of the football stadium here!).
The final stop on this Old Town stroll is Plaza Unamuno. Here, you can find a thriving square where you will see a staircase that eventually leads to Etxebarria Park. There are quite a few stairs, so if you want the exercise you will be rewarded with decent views over the city. However, there is an even better view from the Funicular that is the final stop of the day, so it is up to you!
Old Town Pintxos
After exploring the entirety of the Old Town, it’s likely you’ve worked up quite the appetite! Fortunately enough for you, lunchtime is one of the best times of day to enjoy a pintxos crawl!
Pintxos are the Basque form of tapas – basically small dishes that you order along with a drink. The key to doing it like a local is to only order one or two pintxos with a drink before moving onto another bar and doing the same thing again!
Some great bars in the old town to check out are Sorginzulo in Plaza Nueva, Taberna Basaras, Baster and Bar Rotterdam. All of these have something different to offer and are sure to give you an eclectic taste of the pintxos culture!
Of course, don’t be intimidated if there doesn’t look to be a table – it is standard to stand and eat your pintxos at whatever available space you can find. Just pluck up a bit of confidence and know that you may need to be assertive to order!
If you want to gain some confidence when ordering pintxos, know what the local specialities are or simply want to learn more about Basque cuisine, consider going on a guided food tour of Bilbao!
Once you’ve had your fill of local delicacies, it’s time to experience Bilbao by taking a leisurely stroll along the Estuary. There is a wonderful promenade that lines the Estuary of Bilbao and it is the perfect place to take in the views of the city.
Today, wander on the side of the Old Town until you reach the Zubizuri Bridge – an eclectic and modern footbridge over the Estuary. Along the way, you can take the time to sit down on one of the many benches that line the promenade and simply watch the world go by and enjoy the vibes of the city.
Once you reach the Zubizuri Bridge on your walk along the Estuary, turn into the city and walk a couple of blocks (there will be signs) to the entrance to the funicular that will take you to the top of Arxanda Park! This funicular leaves regularly and provides fantastic views of the city from above.
Tickets for the funicular are €4.30 per person and you can either opt to purchase single-use tickets from the automated kiosk or simply tap your Barik card if you have one. The ride itself gives you a lovely panoramic view of the city and the views from the park are unbeatable. In fact, it is the perfect way to end day one of this Bilbao itinerary.
Day 2 – Museums & New Town
If you only have 2 days in Bilbao, then this is the final day of your Bilbao itinerary. Take this day to explore one of the city’s famed art museums, wander around the metropolitan New Town and maybe head out to another area outside of Bilbao!
Begin your day where you ended the first, at the Zubizuri bridge! If you prefer to walk along the other side of the Estuary than on the first day, go ahead! Then, take the time to wander across the Zubizuri bridge to the Old Town side and enjoy the views from the centre of the river.
Continue your walk along the other bank of the Estuary until you reach the Sabelko Bridge right across from the Guggenheim Museum.
It is a great idea to walk across this bridge as it provides unbeatable views of the incredible Guggenheim building – which is a work of art in and of itself. There is an elevator that can take you to the pedestrian crossing of the bridge and then you can stroll across from there.
After crossing over to the New Town, wander over to Casilda Park for some tranquil vibes before you begin your more intellectual activities of the day. There are lots of lovely park benches to lounge on, plenty of fountains and ponds to admire, and an overall air of peace in an otherwise bustling side of a busy city.
From the park, meander back over to the Guggenheim and visit one of its most famous sculptures – the Puppy. This giant West Highland Terrier was originally meant to be a temporary installation, however, residents loved it so much that it has become permanent.
The giant dog stands at over 12 metres (~40 feet) tall and is decked completely in over 60,000 seasonal flowers. It is truly a spectacular sculpture and was actually my favourite part of the whole Guggenheim experience (and you don’t have to pay a cent to enjoy it!).
Guggenheim or Fine Arts Museum
No visit to Bilbao is complete without visiting one of the city’s famed art museums – the most notable being the Guggenheim. This modern art museum opened in 1997 and the building is designed by Frank Gehry. The opening of the Guggenheim truly inaugurated a new era in Bilbao and helped clean its image from gritty and industrial to hip and artistic.
I would really only recommend visiting if you’re truly interested in modern and contemporary art. I personally found some of the exhibitions of some 20th Century artists to be really worthwhile to visit, however, there were some exhibitions that, I will admit, went a bit over my head.
It’s recommended to book your tickets for the Guggenheim in advance as it can save you both time and money when entering the museum. If you prefer to learn more about the artwork, you can also organise a guided tour that includes skip-the-line tickets.
If you’re not too interested in modern or contemporary art and, instead, want to view some classical paintings, you could opt to visit the Fine Arts Museum instead. Located at the entrance of the Casilda Park, this museum houses works from Spanish greats like Goya, Velazquéz and El Greco and has a vast collection of pieces spanning from the Middle Ages to the 19th Century. It is a great option for art lovers.
New Town Pintxos
After spending so much time in these art museums, it is likely that you’ve worked up an appetite once again. Fortunately, there are countless amazing places for you to undertake a pintxos crawl once more, or simply to sit down and relax.
If you’re looking for a more hip place for a coffee, tea and a brunchy meal, then make sure to head to Arvo Coffee. This is a great Aussie-style cafe that has great drinks and good vibes.
On the more traditional side of things, El Globo Taberna is a bustling and popular pintxos bar that is famous for its crab gratinade – it is absolutely delicious! They also have some of the best Gildas we sampled – the original pintxo consisting of a skewer of green olives, anchovies and pickled peppers.
Another good option for a smaller but still popular pintxos bar is Bar Irache. The tortilla here is particularly delicious (and popular!).
Getxo & Sopelana
After filling up on pintxos, it’s time to hop on the metro and explore another area in the Bilbao metropolitan area, but not part of Bilbao itself – Getxo!
Pronounced Getch-oh, this city lies at the mouth of the Estuary of Bilbao just before it opens into the Bay of Biscay. The area is incredibly pleasant to explore and has a lovely promenade to walk along and enjoy very different views of the area.
However, perhaps the most famous attraction in Getxo is the Vizcaya Bridge. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this bridge connects Getxo to the town of Portugalete. Constructed at the turn of the 20th Century, it protrudes over the Estuary and there is a hanging car that shuttles pedestrians across.
If you want to brave a walk across the top of the bridge, you must pay for tickets at the tourist information centre at the base of the bridge. This does come at a €7.50 price tag for the most basic of tickets.
If the weather is fine (which is a rarity in the Basque Country!), then you may want to head a bit north of Getxo to the town of Sopelana and, more accurately, to the beautiful Sopelana Beach.
Arguably the nicest beach within easy reach of Bilbao, this is the perfect way to round out your 2 days in Bilbao and if you’re staying for longer, it’s a great way to re-energise for day 3!
Day 3 – Basque Coast & Guernica
The third day of this Bilbao itinerary sees you going on a day trip from the city and exploring some of the neighbouring areas.
While it is possible to do a day trip to San Sebastian, it’s best to allocate at least 2 days there and instead concentrate on these smaller Basque towns.
These places are easiest to reach if you’ve rented a car and can go independently, however, there are plenty of organised tours that will take you to plenty of the same stops I’ve listed below.
This small-group tour will take you to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Bermeo and Guernica and back to Bilbao. Alternatively, you could opt for this Game of Thrones tour which will take you to a few of the spots that were used as locations for the (in)famous HBO series.
The first stop out of Bilbao along the dramatic Basque Coast is the beautiful Barrika Beach. Used as a filming location for Game of Thrones (it was part of Dragonstone for those wondering), this beach is wild and striking and an absolutely beautiful place to visit.
If the weather isn’t working in your favour (and that is likely!), it’s still worth stopping at just for the wonderful views.
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe
Another of the Game of Thrones filming locations on this list (again, it was Dragonstone), this island is worth visiting even if you’re not a fan of the series. This striking islet is home to a dramatic stone pathway leading to a small castle. The islet itself is home to dramatic sea arches and a wild look that is perfectly in place with the scenery surrounding it.
It’s worth noting that, in the summer months, visiting here can be a bit of a challenge and you may need to register for a ticket (it is free) in advance to ensure you can visit. We were here on a weekday in late March and there weren’t many people around so this wasn’t necessary for us.
If you’re wondering which days you would need to register for a ticket and want to see if it aligns with your dates, have a look at the official website here.
The stairs and final pathway to the islet are also currently closed, however, you can walk down a steep pathway to get an excellent view of the castle and islet. Parking is also free of charge!
If you’re looking for Basque seaside idyll, then Bermeo is the perfect stop for you! This lovely little fishing village makes for the perfect day trip destination from Bilbao. There is a lovely harbour area that is lined with bars and restaurants to enjoy a drink.
If you’re looking for a rustic and local lunch experience, then we recommend grabbing a menu del día (daily menu) at Toki Alai. You will be incredibly full at a very affordable price point!
And the final stop on this 3 days in Bilbao itinerary is the town of Guernica. This town is, perhaps, most notable for the Pablo Picasso painting of the same name (which is on display at the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid).
The painting depicts the aerial bombing of the town on a market day in 1937. As one of the first bombings of its kind in history, there were over 10,000 people in the town at the time and the result of the bombing was absolutely devastating with 1,654 civilians killed.
In the town today, there is a mural of Picasso’s seminal work which paints a chilling picture of the devastation of the fateful and horrific day.
Guernica is considered to be the spiritual capital of the Basque Country and has strong Basque pride. When in Guernica, make sure to visit the Gernikako Arbola (the Tree of Guernica in English) – an oak tree that symbolises the freedom and traditions of the Basque people.
There are also a number of other places to visit, including a lovely city centre and tranquil gardens to stroll through.
Where to Stay in Bilbao
If you’re planning to spend a few days in Bilbao, you’re going to need to find a great accommodation option to ensure you’re well-rested for all of your exploration. If you’re wondering where to stay in Bilbao, have a look at these suggestions:
Hotel Gran Bilbao – If it’s a luxury stay you’re after in this Basque city, then this hotel is an excellent choice. Centrally located close to all of Bilbao’s top attractions, they have countless plush rooms on offer and numerous other amenities to sure you have a wonderful stay. Click here to see their availability
Hotel Bed4U Bilbao – This mid-range hotel is a great option if you’re looking for something that is going to be a little bit more friendly on your budget. Located within easy walking distance of all of Central Bilbao’s top sites, they have a range of rooms on offer and even have an on-site bar and fitness centre. Click here to see their availability
Latroupe la Granja – If you’re travelling solo or on a tight budget, then this central hostel is an excellent choice. They have both private and dorm rooms available, all rooms are ensuite and there are great common areas where you can meet other, like-minded travellers. Click here to see their availability
Private Rental – If you want to live like a local in Bilbao, then a private apartment rental is an excellent choice. There are lots of properties to choose from – like this modern flat in the Old Town – that can suit all kinds of travel styles and budgets. Click here to browse Bilbao private rentals
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Bilbao hotels!
Planning to spend 2 or 3 days in Bilbao is never a bad idea, especially when you consider just how much there is to do in this bustling, lively and historic Basque city.
Are you planning a trip to Bilbao? Have any questions about this itinerary? Let us know in the comments!
These were great recommendations! we’re considering a one-week trip to Bilbao to visit my niece before she returns from a two-month assignment. My one concern is traveling during Dec/Jan when the weather will be cold and whether we will enjoy the sites or be distracted by the weather. But I enjoyed all your great info!
Hi Reagan – it will certainly be chilly in Dec/Jan but if you have proper clothing, I don’t see why it can’t be enjoyable! Just layer up and always remember an umbrella 🙂
The above is really interesting. We intend to visit Bilbao in February for 6 nights with two children (winter midterm break) and are really looking to see we what we can do. Maybe 6 nights is too much but we have already booked our flights.
Hi Audrey – while 6 days in Bilbao itself may be a bit much, you will definitely have enough time to explore other places in the Basque country and go on a number of day trips. Check out our Basque itinerary for more inspiration 🙂